All three Fayette County commissioners tout the importance of fiscal responsibility.
But they don’t all share the same view of how fiscally responsible it’s been to maintain ties with Fayette County’s longtime financial consultant, whose firm the county has paid nearly $1 million since the start of 2016.
Commissioners Vincent A. Vicites and Dave Lohr have consistently supported the efforts of Samuel J. Lynch Jr., the county’s chief financial consultant, since taking office in 2016, saying that Lynch’s guidance was instrumental in pulling the county through multiple rough financial patches in recent years.
“(W)hatever he’s gotten paid, he’s improved the structure of our financial management in the county to a level that it’s never been before,” Vicites said of Lynch, the director at Susquehanna Accounting & Consulting Solutions, Inc. (SACS). The county has used the Harrisburg financial accounting, consulting and advisory service for more than a decade.
“It’s better than it’s ever been,” Vicites said.
Just as consistently, Commissioner Angela M. Zimmerlink has questioned the value and cost-effectiveness of his services, arguing that the county should explore alternative services that cost less.
Invoice documentation shows the county paid SACS $977,601 from the beginning of 2016 through April 2019 for services consisting largely of work for audits and on the budget.
“There’s no way … any county commissioners should be paying a financial consultant that amount of money,” Zimmerlink said. “It’s not being fiscally responsible.”
Lynch began providing consulting for the county in 2004. Fayette County severed ties with SACS in the fall of 2014 under Zimmerlink and former commissioners Vincent Zapotosky and Al Ambrosini, but the county brought Lynch back in November 2015 to aid in preparing the budget.
With Vicites and Lohr succeeding Ambrosini and Zapotosky, at the start of 2016, the commissioners had Lynch return to provide accounting assistance to amend the 2016 budget, a decision that revealed a $3.5 million deficit.
The commissioners approved a balanced $32.6 million spending plan in February 2016 through department spending reductions, correcting certain budgetary figures, raising real estate taxes one mill, eliminating 12 full-time county jobs and rescinding a pay raise made to about 100 employees the previous year.
Lynch said in February 2016 that he did not have updated information that he requested while he finalized the budget, resulting in more than $300,000 in salaries and $200,000 in benefits not being included in the initial 2016 budget for the county prison. Lynch also said in December 2015 that he had discovered upon his return that the county had yet to turn over a 2014 audit statement to its outside auditors.
“(W)hen you look at that previous term of commissioners, (it) was pure chaos,” Lohr said.
“We were robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Vicites said. “Internal auditing policies were totally wrong. We were going to lose funding. (Lynch) straightened it out.”
Later in 2016, the county approved Lynch as the county’s chief financial consultant to provide technical accounting assistance toward its 2017 budget at the SACS rate of $235 per hour for “Senior Consultant level time,” an increase from the previous rate of $175 per hour that has held since then, according to agreements with SACS from recent years signed by Vicites and Lohr but not Zimmerlink.
“(I)t is a substantial increase in hourly rate,” Zimmerlink said.
The 36 checks the county issued to SACS totaling $977,601 out of the general fund since the start of 2016 through April 2019 mostly covered work for audits and annual budgets, including a $25,742 payment for reopening the 2016 budget.
From 2012 through 2015, the span served by the previous board of commissioners, 28 checks that Fayette County issued to SACS totaled $176,453 out of the general fund.
Zimmerlink noted a 2014 agreement between SACS and the commissioners stipulated that SACS billing would not exceed $50,000 without approval in advance, a stipulation not included in more recent agreements.
But for Vicites and Lohr, Lynch’s fiscal oversight has been invaluable, going beyond just his reopening of the troublesome 2016 budget.
Lynch recalled submitting the county’s 2015 financial statement to meet the state’s deadline on short notice and working on a 2016 financial report during a Christmas vacation in 2017 that allowed federal funding for Fayette Area Coordinated Transportation and other county services to continue.
“(W)e came close to losing our bus transportation. We were this close to losing it,” Lynch said. “ … I had to fix the problems, I found things that were procedurally wrong twice. (There were) department heads doing things they shouldn’t do. It was pretty bad county-wise.”
The county’s Moody’s rating was upgraded from “negative” to “stable” in 2017. Vicites credited that to Lynch’s efforts to improve the county’s fiscal management.
Lohr predicts the improved rating will result in lower interest rates for county projects going forward.
Zimmerlink noted the county could make a request for proposals costing the county less than SACS, adding that she doesn’t think the county should have a chief financial consultant.
“We have a controller,” Zimmerlink said.
Lynch said that he has been training the county’s chief accountant to take over more of the accounting responsibilities, a move that would save the county money since the accountant is already a county employee. Vicites said that should lessen how much SACS receives.
Zimmerlink said she’s heard that before.
“He’s doing all this teaching and it’s adding up to a million dollars,” Zimmerlink said.
“You get what you pay for,” Vicites said.